Whilst the film industry huddles around the flames of Birdman, The Theory of Everything and Boyhood, it’s easy to forget a microscopic science-fiction thriller that suffered from a considerably limited release. Realistically, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin would never truly compete against the aforementioned trio; they are leagues ahead in terms of commerciality and global clout. Imagine having rivals in the shape of Stephen Hawking and Beetlejuice? This, I'm sorry to say, is the cold reality of the film awards season.
The director of Under the Skin should consider himself extremely hard done by this year, although the Academy rarely shines its light on the sci-fi genre. With exceptions like E.T, Avatar, Inception, Gravity and District 9 all receiving nominations for Best Picture, its a tight squeeze onto the red carpet. Under the Skin was crafted with an £8m budget, as opposed to James Cameron's production which rolled along with approximately £230m, or Christopher Nolan's £150m mind-heist spectacular. The modern world presents a translucent reality in which sci-fi art films cross the border to the Academy Awards, so it seems the war against Hollywood juggernauts must rage on.
A large amount of Under the Skin's quality is drawn from its unconventional production techniques, which included using non-actors, natural light and hidden cameras. This sets it refreshingly apart from the repetitive mainstream arena, helping to achieve an off-kilter atmosphere and darkly placid tone. Featuring a host of relevant issues including deformation and beauty, Glazer's film provokes us with traditionally Academy-friendly subjects, such as the inclusion of Adam Pearson; the actor who suffers from neurofibromatosis. Scarlett Johansson's character (simply known as The Woman) usually seduces bewildered hitchhikers and eventually destroys them, but when introduced to this quiet disfigured man, The Woman experiences fresh emotions and decides to release him.
This raises questions on the societal perceptions of disability and treatment of sufferers, something that you won't find in many contemporary science-fiction outings. This coexists with the secondary issue underlined in Under the Skin; the notion of beauty, and here Johansson's casting becomes a little more interesting. In the final third of the film, The Woman is seen staring at her naked body in the mirror, studying every molecule that her homosapien shell has to offer. Her extraterrestrial mind cannot fully comprehend what she is witnessing, so we as spectators join her in the deconstruction of beauty, coolly furnished by Mica Levi’s isolated musical score.
Under the Skin unsettles the nerves like a pissed stranger at the window; but it is this macabre infrastructure that sets it apart from any other film you're likely to have seen. Without sporting a 'horror' tag, it constricts the viewer with vines of psychological terror, largely within The Woman's ambiguous residency. During our time there, the director transports us into an unearthly realm that hosts bone-curdling imagery and fragments of despair. Here, we witness The Woman beckoning her victims into a lifeless plain; smoothly gliding across the room she begins to undress herself, yet the males never manage to catch her. Confronted by a mysterious watery sub-terrain, these unfortunate souls are harvested for their innards, which are then (presumably) placed onto her alien craft as clumpy organ soup. This is maybe the most curious death sentence in recent cinematic memory, and symbolises Glazer's masterful eye for the uncanny.
Regarding the Oscars in general, most of this year's winners and nominees originated from September - January releases, but 2015's wildly entertaining multi-award winner The Grand Budapest Hotel was brought to us in March, alongside Under the Skin. This fact creates more ground for my concern; although Wes Anderson's film is much more accessible in terms of casting (Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe and Jude Law are just a ripple in the ocean of talent gathered by the auteur), for a young actress who gains superhero roles pretty much every other year, the involvement of Johansson in Under the Skin should be recognised as courageous and daring.
Glazer is a filmmaker fascinated by challenge - it took him ten years to adapt Michel Faber's original novel into this nightmarish film. Also helmer of music videos for Radiohead, The Dead Weather, Blur and Massive Attack; he is one of our country’s finest visionaries, and this year undoubtedly earned a nomination for Best Picture. This wounding snub, however, will perhaps send Under the Skin into an exclusive critical field, making it far more respected than its contemporary peers; joining the likes of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Stoker and Zodiac.
With an avant-garde approach and experimental nucleus, it’s understandable why the ivory court of the Academy has done this: there are systems in place to maintain a harmonious status-quo.